Washington state voters, over and over, have approved initiatives establishing a required two-thirds majority of the Legislature to raise taxes.
But is such a mandate constitutional? Can the voters approve a supermajority mandate or does the state constitution have to be amended?
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court started to ponder those questions as it heard arguments in a challenge to the constitutionality of the current voter-approved supermajority law brought by education advocates and others.
Attorneys for the education advocates said they believe the state constitution says lawmakers can pass taxes with a simple majority. And, they argued, the two-thirds rule has prevented the state from adequately funding education and other government responsibilities.
“The impacts from the two-thirds requirement are real and undeniable,” said attorney Paul Lawrence. “It’s taking off the table legislative options to address the state’s most pressing problems.”
The advocates are muddling the debate. The laws impact on education funding is simply not relevant. Nor are political arguments.
Prior to the court session, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said the Supreme Court’s ruling on this case is the key to whether lawmakers can properly respond to a previous high court decision calling on the state to fully fund basic education.
Pedersen said that since the court told lawmakers to put more money into education, it must give lawmakers the tools they need to make that happen.
This is the wrong focus. The Legislature already has the power to make funding decisions and that was proven when it approved a balanced budget. Sure, it was more difficult. Lawmakers approved minor taxes and opted to trim spending in some areas in order to put money into education and other programs.
Forcing lawmakers to make tough decision isn’t necessarily unconstitutional. Frankly, we believe this is the approach that should be taken even if the two-thirds majority is eventually lifted.
Lawmakers need to trim state government to the level that funding for education and all necessary functions of state government are sustainable over time.
Still, those who are challenging the constitutionality of the two-thirds majority might prevail on the argument that the state constitution says a simple majority is required to approve taxes.
Backers of the two-thirds majoirty contend the simply majority is a mere minimum while those opposing the two-thirds say the simply majority must stand unless the constitution is changed to specify the need for a supermajority.
The nine justices will now sift through the constitution’s language in an effort to determine the intent of those who wrote the constitution.